Pilots offer free flights to spark interest in aviation among Central Florida's youth

Young Eagles Flight program offered at Leesburg International Airport

By Carolina Cardona - Reporter

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. - For more than 25 years, the Experimental Aviation Association has been getting results for children who love planes and want to fly them.

The EAA program at Leesburg International Airport, is one of several in the country that offers the Young Eagles Flight program for free.

Pilots donate their time, planes and fuel so that Central Florida kids get hands-on experience flying a plane.

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"That's what we do, and that's why we do it. For our passion of aviation," Joel Hargis, president of Chapter 534 of the EAA said.

Hargis is on a mission to build interest in aviation among younger generations.

"Most people don't realize there's a pilot shortage right now and there's gonna be a big pilot shortage over the next 10 years," Hargis said.

Hargis and other pilots are getting results for the industry by letting children check out their planes -- an experience that includes flying up to 3,000 feet.

"We'll take them out for a detailed pre-flight. We're gonna walk around the plane, just like we do on any, every flight, and as we do that, we're teaching them control surfaces, a runs, elevator, the rudder and what they do. Many times the pilot will let the youth fly the airplane," Hargis said.

At Leesburg International Airport, 15-year-old Emily is part of the Young Eagles Flight EAA program. After her first taste behind the controllers, she knew she wanted to make it her career.

"I want to be a missionary pilot. I really enjoy coming here, and I like to come here as many times as I can," Lininger said.

The program launched nationally in 1992. Since then, the Young Eagles program has flown nearly 2 million children ages 8 to 17 at no cost to their parents.

"We are self-funded. We do receive some donations from time to time. Sometimes the parents are so delighted, that they'll give a donation. It's not something we ask for," Hargis said. 

The EAA program also offers a youth program. So, if your child likes the experience with the Young Eagle Flight, he or she can continue their path into aviation with this program for free.

A simulator that allows students to practice flights and learn more about the basics of flying, including how to build a plane, was recently donated to the Leesburg chapter.

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Lininger is working on a plane that was wrecked by Hurricane Irma.

"Whatever was needing to be done on the plane that they're working on, she was right there helping out and learning about the mechanics," Lininger's mother, Jeanine, said,

She said she's been impressed by her daughter's interest in aviation.

"We started it all the way from the beginning, getting the engine running and that took a long time. Now, the engine runs. All we have to do is put the wings on the airplane and it will actually fly," Lininger said. 

Lininger said being a girl in a male-dominated industry motivates her to do her best.

"I have to make sure I do it better than the guys do," she said.

Her mother said she's taken it very seriously.

"It's just not a play thing for her," her mother said. "It's not playing video games. She wants to learn so she can be the best pilot that she can be."

The next Young Eagles Flight is Feb. 16 and is already close to reaching capacity.

If you're interested, there will be another opportunity with the program in March.

For more information about chapters near you, click here.

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